Sylvia Wishart: the lamp in the seaward window

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Until November 5

Sylvia Wishart RSA, who died in 2008 aged 72, was one of Scotland’s leading contemporary landscape painters and yet her work is little known outside the Orcadian circles in which she is celebrated. This major retrospective, which shows work from schoolgirl sketches to mature oils, is the first to bring together key works from public and private collections, presenting an unparalleled chance to survey the career of this “quiet, private” artist.

Born in 1936 in Stromness, the daughter of a seaman, Wishart’s artistic talent was evident from her schooldays. Leaving school, she worked for two years with the Post Office, but was eventually persuaded by her influential art teacher Ian MacInnes to apply to Grays School of Art in Aberdeen, where she studied as a mature student.

Wishart, like MacInnes, was a friend of the poet George Mackay Brown, whose writing provides the evocative title of the exhibition. The two were closely associated -- and Mackay Brown owned one of Wishart’s “lamp” paintings -- having been born in next-door houses in Stromness some 15 years apart, and both found fuel for their art in the Rackwick landscape on the neighbouring island of Hoy. “In a particular way, Sylvia’s work is a visual parallel to the image of Orkney that George portrays, particularly in that period,” says Pier Arts Centre director Neil Firth, who, incidentally, was taught by Wishart at Grays.

While Wishart often painted the Aberdeenshire landscape that surrounded her during the years she spent as a lecturer at Grays, it is her Orcadian works, whether the fishing boat-filled view from the window of her pier-side cottage in Stromness (now the Pier Arts Centre) or the view from her hillside house, Heatherybraes, looking down over the fields and shores to the distant cliffs of the Sound to Hoy, which dominated her working life.

“In a rather lovely turn of the wheel,” says Firth, “the small sketches from her school sketchbook are of St John’s Head on Hoy. Her late work, from Outertown in Stromness, are views looking straight across the Sound of Hoy to the very same cliffscape.”

Muted in colour, the oil deftly applied, Wishart’s are landscapes across which man and the seasons play. The sense of in-out landscapes developed in her Stromness studio, and the window as frame for (and inherent part of) the view, became even more defined at Outertown.

“A very good friend of hers called by one day and, finding her out, drew a Picasso-esque bird on the window,” says Firth. “Sylvia left this drawing on the window for a long time. It made her aware of the window pane in relation to the view. The interior reflected, the exterior landscape and the notion of the passage of time recorded all come together in her late work. There is a kind of engagement with the moving moment in the picture, yet everything remains still, like a reverie.”

When the exhibition tours, in reduced form, to the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh next year, devotees hope that a wider public will be introduced to Wishart’s very particular reverie, bringing greater recognition of her importance.